Colombia Activates Strategic Operational Centers Against Narcotrafficking
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo January 08, 2018Colombia’s Ministry of National Defense has three Strategic Operational Centers (CEO, in Spanish) to support its fight against narcotrafficking in the country's northwest region. Close to 4,700 troops from the Colombian National Army and the Colombian National Police work daily to counter transnational criminal organizations and restore security in this region.
“Antioquia, a highly relevant region with future prospects and economic potential for the country, took a beating from criminal groups who use farmers as the first link in the drug trade, forcing them to produce coca,” Colombian Army Colonel José Manuel Gómez, commander of the Paramillo Massif Task Force (FUNUP, in Spanish), told Diálogo. “The goal is for farmers to go back to their lawful crops,” added Colombian Army Colonel Adrián Giraldo Jiménez, commander of the Special Counternarcotics Brigade.
FUNUP has four mobile brigades deployed to the south of Córdoba and Bajo Cauca. The brigades work to combat criminal gangs, illicit crops, and illegal mining.
Authorities activated the last CEO between July and September 2017 in Caucasia, Antioquia. Armed Forces assigned to this CEO work jointly with the local community to destroy the chain of alkaloids production, eradicate coca crops, and coordinate voluntary substitution of illicit crops. Authorities activated the Tumaco CEO in February 2017, and the San José del Guaviare CEO in September. A fourth CEO is scheduled to begin operations in Cúcuta in the first quarter of 2018.
The counternarcotics centers cover departments with the highest incidence of [illicit] crops. “Practically 91 percent of coca crops can be found in 11 departments,” Col. Giraldo said. The Caucasia CEO covers the departments of Antioquia, Córdoba, and Bolívar.
“In these areas, our operation is very strong,” Col. Giraldo explained. “[We have] sustained operations involving four or five months of eradication and pursuit—we are ready for this.”
The strategy against narcotrafficking networks relies on three groups: The operational group consists of illicit-crop eradication and prosecution. The second, the social group, comprises different Colombian government agencies, such as the Ministry of Social Protection, which establishes the community's basic needs to keep them from pursuing illicit crops. The third group is international cooperation.
CEOs coordinate intelligence as well as logistics operations and prosecution related to narcotrafficking across the chain of production. CEOs “take advantage of the specific capacities of their different parts to get directly to the heart of the problem,” Col. Gomez said.
A central role
“The Army, with its capacity and deployment, has come to play a central role in CEOs,” Col. Giraldo said. “The military force achieves two important tasks: forced eradication by [pulling out] the plant, and the destruction of all cocaine-production labs, without disregarding control of input products and transport, to prevent them from taking the drugs to different countries.”
A total of 15,000 soldiers work in CEOs to eradicate crops. The Army also deploys more than 40,000 service members in interdiction and eradication programs in the rest of the country.
“The Army also conducts special operations focused on heavy production—the cocaine hydrochloride labs,” Col. Giraldo said. “Narcotrafficking criminal networks evolve to use different forms of pressure to force farmers to plant coca.”
The CEOs’ challenge is to work faster and help communities really carry out their legal projects in as little time as possible. Service members work on getting closer to the people to find their place in the communities.
“At first, it was very difficult. As the days went by, soldiers showed [farmers] the advantages of legal commerce,” Col. Giraldo explained. “Little by little, communities accept this presence.”
“Likewise, it’s a huge challenge to maintain security in the assigned area,” Col. Gómez said. “In addition to demanding everything from our men, it requires [a] very well-structured strategy and planning that must be executed impeccably, since it’s a joint mission with the support of the Colombian Air Force and coordinated by the National Police.”
International cooperation contributed to the execution of projects and new strategies against narcotrafficking and the eradication of coca crops in Colombia. In October 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Colombia donated 700 machines for coca plant destruction to the Antioquia CEO, including GPS systems that can map the area where the eradication will be done, as well as detection equipment for water pollution due to illegal mining.
“We have always had a lot of support from the international community, especially the U.S. government, of course SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command], and various security agencies like the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development,” Col. Giraldo said. “They facilitate the work with assistance, equipment, and information exchange to move forward in these very difficult situations of increased crop production, which people see as their only chance for a decent livelihood. The integrated work we've had is very important.”
“After a commitment period [farmers] see benefits, especially in terms of development,” Col. Gómez added. “The goal of the Antioquia CEO over the long term is to do away with this cancer of illicit crops.”
Thanks to security forces’ joint operations, Colombia surpassed its proposed goal of eradicating 50,000 hectares of illicit crops in 2017. The Ministry of Defense reported in December 2017 that 51,200 hectares of coca were eradicated in different regions around the country. In 2017, security forces also seized around 400 tons of pure cocaine in the country. The goal for 2018: eradicate 63,000 hectares of coca crop.